Saturday, March 26, 2016

RAW DEAL (1948)


Anthony Mann directs another tough crime noir starring Dennis O’Keefe, a prisoner soon to break out unscathed with the help of his lady, Claire Trevor. Her character is full of angst and self-obsession. Her inner thoughts voiced throughout the film by Trevor, accompanied by the mental instability sound of a theremin. It gets more amusing with each use, finding it easy to substitute Madeline Kahn in the role.


In the course of the late night escape, O’Keefe stops at Marsha Hunt’s place, his caseworker while in prison. His break-out is not what she recommended and attempts to call the police for his own protection. But he abducts her and the trio swap cars and escape a roadblock as expected. Trevor, insecurity personified, does not like Hunt. Jealous of her. Trevor wants her removed as soon and however possible. At least not having her sit in the middle of the front seat.


Turns out, the escape was set up by mobster, Raymond Burr, who figured O’Keefe would not escape successfully given the odds. Once again Burr plays a sadistic psycho, a despicable bully who is also terrified when told of the successful escape. He wants him taken out so he does not part with the 50k due him. Burr decides to send his hired gun, John Ireland, in his place to finish him at the designated payoff location. The ensuing intense and believable fist fight does not go down in Burr’s favor either, creating another Burr under Ireland’s saddle. Hunt manages to get off a non-fatal shot, bringing Ireland down. Though Hunt carries a torch for O’Keefe, reluctantly he knows his life is more suited with Trevor. Dang it. To keep Hunt safe from harm he sends her back to Los Angeles. But she is recognized by Ireland in route and brings her back to Burr as leverage.


Meanwhile, waiting for their ship to set sail for Mexico, Trevor answers a call from Burr’s mouthpiece who says that Hunt is in grave danger unless O’Keefe makes an appearance. Trevor, in another self-centered decision, lies about the call. O’Keefe is resigned to spend an “eternity” with Trevor, mumbling about what might be. Her face silhouetted in shadows, Miss Theremin reminds us that he will always be thinking of Hunt and her inner thought blurts out her name for O’Keefe to hear. Quicker than he can say “what is wrong with you, lady?!” he slices through a thick fog of thugs and bullets to confront big Burr. Burr is cordial. Sweating. In the darkness, after saying he is unarmed, he shoots O’Keefe, who returns fire. O’Keefe locates Hunt and Miss Theremin arrives to finish out the film.
This is a good B-movie with plenty of noir elements. Shots of Burr from a low vantage in his enormous suit presents a good case for widescreen. The low budget is obvious at times with matte paintings or projection backgrounds, but it is balanced by more important location shoots. Mann manages to pull out a good one. It is not that predictable but several standard devices are used once again. I never understood the logic of holding a loaded gun on a driver or passenger when going through a police roadblock, for instance. O’Keefe seems as ruthless as Burr in the beginning but Hunt’s persuasive comments soften him in the end. Soften. A word unfamiliar to Trevor.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

THE SUN SETS AT DAWN (1950)


This thought provoking film, based on a true story, has the look of a late 1930’s melodrama. It falls into the noir category, perhaps from not knowing where else it should be placed. 

A young man is accused of murder and a group of reporters are on location to compile the news about the state’s first use of the electric chair. The newfangled electric chair keeps malfunctioning, much to their disappointment. With a few hours before execution, the chaplain is called in to offer wisdom and have the “boy” (as the script calls him) get right with his soul. Philip Shawn (aka Patrick Waltz) is actually 26 but could pass for 19. The good old days when anyone under 21 was still considered a boy. The lad repeats scripture passages but cannot honestly admit the sin of murder. Because he did not commit a murder. 

At dawn, the chair breaks down again, blacking out half the county it would seem. A result, the priest believes that was meant to be. God saved the boy’s life for a reason. The viewer might believe it is because they capture the real killer so the story ends justly. But this is a true story. The scene when the group of reporters, each with their own rapid responses about the electric snafu, is rather exciting and well edited. Two of the reporters are played by veterans, King Donovan, who always inhabits his roles, and Percy Helton, everyone’s favorite weasel. Both with distinctive vocal qualities.

But there is a good share of weak acting throughout. The girlfriend of the innocent man, played by Sally Parr, for one. A scene in particular involves a prison orderly. While collecting mail at a frequented diner, he recognizes the mobster thought to have been dead for some three years. He has a past with the criminal and tries to convince the off duty policemen in the diner who he is. But he nervously takes matters in his own hands. I found the scene awkwardly funny when he slips a wanted bulletin inside the menu for the mobster to see before he orders. “Somethin’ to eat? (pause) Mister!” He places the menu down with the quickness of The Flash and calls him by name. Coldly, the mobster rises and fires. The prison orderly’s final frantic lines, in an effective stark close-up, is a plea to get the mobster’s fingerprints as confirmation.

The script brings the tension right to the wire (sorry) as it appears the kid will fry. However, despite his effective plastic surgery, fingerprints do not lie. The doomed mobster sets the record straight and elects to peck out his own confession on the typewriter. One letter. One index finger. At a time. Taking forever. Funny. It will leave enough time to get that chair fixed once and for all.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

WHERE THE SPIES ARE (1966)


This lighthearted, yet underwhelming film was to initiate a Dr. Love spy series. Released fifty years ago this month, the decision not to pursue a sequel had to be fairly obvious. A baggy-eyed David Niven plays said doctor, a reluctant recruit to carry out a Cold War medical mission. A charming, debonair man, Niven was not particularly handsome at fifty-six unless he is wearing a jolly good smile or saying about anything with his British accent. How he is roped into the spy game is good fun and the movie grabs your attention in the first five or so minutes. Usually a good sign for any movie. Usually. Noel Harrison fans unite!

The action goes from interesting to dangerous in very quick order. This is a better spy yarn than comedy as the amusement is subtle. Picturesque location shoots add to the worldwide flavor established in the popular James Bond series. Niven’s instant romance with a double agent, Francoise Dorleac, is hard to fathom. She is young enough to be his niece. Having her fall so quickly for the old codger is at least remarkable. Just as remarkable are the spy gadgets Niven instinctively uses like a pro. Without any training other than medical.

The last thirty minutes live up to the spy genre as the good doctor is briefly tortured to gain his knowledge about his part in the mission in stereotypical Soviet fashion. Niven comes off competent and a bit daring. However, painfully laughable scenes hurt this otherwise decent ending. Obvious budget constraints took their toll. One is the landing of the Comet airliner in Canada, created from a scale model and set. Not unusual for this era but Gerry Anderson’s “Thunderbirds” series was more believable than this. And second, when Niven “jumps” from the taxiing plane, what jumps out and hits the ground appears to be a close up of dryer lint as if blown by a hair dryer. Whatever that is, it certainly is not humanoid. Truly hilarious.

Filmed in Metrocolor, the film looks faded and weak. I do not think this was intended to subliminally reflect on this movie, however. The most glaring faux pas is a mixed bag music score. It jumps from a jazzy, bongo and percussion coolness to sappy full orchestra elevator music which in no way is appropriate for the scene it is used to support. That scoring segment might have gone over better had Niven co-starred with Doris Day in another family film.

The poster speaks for itself. The film obviously plays off the recent 007 successes at the height of an international spy craze. If you like this early spy genre or you are a huge Niven fan you will enjoy this. Well, except for those creepy romance scenes with his “niece.” I would recommend seeing “Casino Royale” first, however. It might help.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

TELEVISION’S INTEGRAL CHARACTERS

A Hypothetical Sidekick for Jim Rockford

On the classic series, “The Rockford Files,” private detective Jim Rockford usually worked alone, by preference, to solve cases. He did things his way. For this reason the series was not created with a sidekick or an assistant in mind. Jim was not Barnaby Jones or Joe Mannix. Angel Martin might seem to be a logical candidate. Although he was a frequent contact, sometimes working with Rockford, he more often than not was a detriment to him. Angel never took nor retained any advice from Rockford and he would just as soon sell Jim out to save his own neck. Not the traits of a trusted sidekick. Other members of the cast fell short of the sidekick moniker with occupations at odds with Rockford. But there was one character in the same line of work who assisted and learned from Rockford. I think the young, aspiring private investigator, Richie Brockelman, would make a good candidate. An endearing character to be sure, thanks to a superb script and Dennis Dugan’s performance playing a character much younger than himself. Unfortunately, Brockelman was not able to sustain his own series. He needed Rockford’s help.


Though only guest starring in two, ninety-minute episodes, Richie was to Rockford what Chester was to Matt Dillon, Archie to Nero Wolfe or Artemis to James West. Each with opposite personality traits to one another. Richie runs mornings. Rockford runs only when being chased by thugs. Richie is excited about any new case. Rockford is skeptical of most clients and, at times, takes the job just to pay off creditors. But their common ground, a necessary sidekick qualification, is being in the same line of work and loving it. Student and mentor relying and learning from each other to solve a case.

Rockford meets Richie in one of the best episodes of the series. “The House on Willis Avenue” is brilliantly written and introduces Richie as a guy who also thinks outside the rules and at times, a con man to rival Rockford; a competent investigator with a lot to learn. Both are attending the funeral of Joe Tooley, a veteran Los Angeles P.I., played by Paul Fix. The things Joe taught Rockford kept him alive his first few years. Tooley was a mentor of sorts to Rockford. When Rockford coincidentally sits next to Richie and introduces himself, Richie is in awe. Wow! Jim Rockford! He cannot help but stare. The beauty of this first meeting is that it reinforces Rockford as one of the best and most experienced private detectives in the Los Angeles area. Legendary in Richie’s eyes. It also establishes the “gee whiz” factor for young Brockelman.


Neither buy the idea that Tooley could have died in the location that the authorities said he did. Paraphrasing, “The thing of it is, is, I don’t think Joe Tooley’s death was an accident, Mr. Rockford. And if you are working on the same theory, we should pool our resources and work together on this.” Rockford does not show his hand readily to the lad so Richie keeps needling him in the hope that he will provide the information he wants. Rockford makes no commitment but makes it clear that if they work together Richie is to follow his lead. “Hey, no problem. You’re the boss,” replies Richie. But in his unrestrained enthusiasm, Richie has the tendency to butt in on Rockford’s conversations after being told not to say anything. “Do you mind, son?!,” Rockford retorts. He calls him “son” but his driving skills, at the expense of Rockford’s Firebird, completely loses the bad guys in one scene and Rockford is impressed. And that is saying something. ”I guess people underestimate you all the time, son.” To which Richie replies, “Yeah. You can count on it.” Richie quickly endears himself to Rockford, who, in turn, teaches the young P.I. a thing or two. Especially how to get into business offices they have no authority to be in. A real teaching moment for Richie.


In a scene reminiscent of Chester Goode confiding in Matt Dillon in numerous first-year epsiodes, Richie asks for sage advice from Rockford. Richie says his dad does not understand why he is in the P.I. business. He assumes Rockford’s own father likes what he does for a living. Jim is quite familiar with his father’s opinion on the subject, responds, “Oh, he will say things like, ‘Life is like a red Ford. If you rev the engine too much it won’t last long.’ “Things like that.” A puzzled but accepting look comes over Richie’s face.

In the following season’s episode, “Never Send a Boy King to do a Man’s Job,” Rockford and Richie, with the aid of a cast of operatives, team up for an elaborate sting operation to bring down a crooked sports promoter, Jack Coombs, whose underhanded practices have forced Richie’s father out of business. Richie is beside himself and wants to make Coombs pay. But he is not sure how to go about it. He suggests some sort of con to Rockford but he is wary of a sting on such a powerful businessman with endless connections. It could very well backfire. Yet the whole idea could be a thing of beauty and Rockford is in. Their plan is to get Coombs invested in a phony Egyptian artifacts tour that promises to bring in millions. 

Coombs is amazed at the potential and takes charge as only he can. By beating his opponents into submission. In separate incidents, both he and Richie take a pretty good beating from Coomb’s muscle. It is Richie’s understanding that when the principle marks get beaten up, there is a flaw in the con somewhere. Rockford does not find the comment amusing. Coombs boldly makes a move which Rockford or Richie never saw coming. Richie admits to Jim, “He gave us the ‘ol greased pole.”


With the only back up plan that might work, they turn up the heat on Coombs by suggesting, through a series of fake deaths, there may be an ancient curse on anyone associated with the artifacts. Coombs, already a health hypochondriac, immediately buys his way out of the whole deal, unknowingly writing a large enough check to restore Richie’s father’s business and pay off the operatives.

Though not official sidekicks, Rockford and Brockelman fit the bill on the assumed age gap alone. Rockford’s experience leads the way but cases would not be resolved successfully without Richie Brockelman’s assistance. Proving two opposites can work well together.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

THE HOODLUM (1951)


Monarch Films produced this low budget crime drama, complete with studio backlot sets and in-studio automobile interiors. A few scenes are shot on location but any realism is diminished by a cheap production.

The opening automobile scene, with frantic violin solo, shows a very worried Lawrence Tierney slowly scowling over at this real life brother Edward behind the wheel. Tierney has the look which indicates whatever is going to happen will not be pleasant. The scene flashbacks to Tierney’s teen days to explain this lifelong sociopathic criminal behavior. Someone who has been blind to the thought of reforming and feels no one will ever give him a break. He trusts no one. Tierney’s performance is the reason to watch this hour-long film, though his previous performance in “Born to Kill” probably took this type of character to even lower lows. It is another in a string of despicable characters that critics came down hard against. I imagine they expected nothing more from Tierney.
Edward, in his first credited film appearance, owns a successful gas station business and gives his brother a job in hopes he will finally settle down. Instead, Tierney immediately tries to figure a way to steal the money from the armored car stopped at the bank across the street. To make Tierney even more despicable he seduces his sister-in-law who becomes pregnant. Totally uncaring about this, he assembles a gang to hit the bank. The brother thinks something is suspicious in front of the bank but is stopped from calling the police by the butt end of Tierney’s gun.
As real life robber Baron Lamm taught every bank robber to follow, they switch cars at a planned location. Their limo getaway is facilitated by bringing up the tail end of a funeral procession which gets them through a roadblock. At their hideout, the gang turns on Tierney and leaves him with a mighty big headache. He returns to his mother’s dying beside with selfish remorse but it is too late. His mother, Lisa Golm, gives him a good tongue lashing for being a rotten soul. The film closes with a return to the opening scene on their way to the city dump. Right where bad brother belongs. Tierney seems puzzled by it all. What would cause this kind of brotherly behavior?